Forty-one years ago on Tuesday, Roberto Clemente left baseball, and left the world, at only 38. Far too soon. He was killed in a plane crash, shortly after take off from San Juan, Puerto Rico. Clemente and three others were travelling to Managua, Nicaragua, to deliver supplies to earthquake victims. Clemente was concerned that supplies were ending up in the wrong hands.
Clemente's obituary was published in The New York Times on January 2, 1973:
"Three days of national mourning for Mr. Clemente were proclaimed in his native Puerto Rico, where he was the most popular sports figure in the island's history. He is a certainty to be enshrined in Baseball's Hall of Fame. He was only the 11th man in baseball history to get 3,000 hits, and his lifetime batting average of .317 was the highest among active players."
On the field, Clemente did it all. He was a tremendous hitter. He won four batting titles, was a perennial All-Star, was the National League's 1966 MVP, and was a premier defender. He won 12 straight Gold Gloves, from 1961 through to his final season in 1972.
Clemente aged with grace. From 1969 through 1972, his final four seasons, his age 34 to 37 years, even while injuries limited him to 480 games, he hit .339/.387/.521, with 56 home runs, 90 doubles, 37 triples, and 287 RBI. He had a 153 OPS+ over those four years, well above his career 130 OPS+ over his 18-year career.
Clemente, however, was more than a baseball player. He was a humanitarian. The mark -- and the hole -- he left was best captured in a letter to Sports Illustrated from a reader in late January 1973:
"Those of us who follow baseball and sports in general are continually disheartened by the misguided priorities of many of those who either direct or participate in sports today. If there ever was an exception to what is becoming an unfortunate rule, it was Clemente. The records and awards that he compiled during his career will serve as testimony to his excellence and exceptional skill as a baseball player. However, it would not be doing him justice to allow your description of him to be the sole testimony registered in tribute to his excellence as a human being.
"Certainly he was a proud man, and he had every right to be. The level of stardom he achieved, given his very humble beginnings, serves as an inspiration to young aspiring ballplayers in Puerto Rico and the countries of Latin America. But you make no mention of his works as a humanitarian, despite the fact that the circumstances surrounding his death provided all the evidence that you would need to acknowledge how sincere his desire was to help his fellow man.
"The real tragedy in the death of Roberto Clemente was in the loss not of a man who had accomplished so much, but of a man who had so much yet to do. His dream for the youth of Puerto Rico, a sports city for the underprivileged youth of the island, was still in its infancy. Hopefully, the cornerstone that he laid will be expanded upon as a fitting memorial to one of his lifelong ideals."
Clemente's ideals haven't been forgotten. When Carlos Beltran won the 2013 Roberto Clemente Award, awarded annually "to a player who demonstrates the values Clemente displayed in his commitment to community and understanding the value of helping others" by Major League Baseball, he talked about Clemente being his inspiration, and how much the award meant to him. "I've always wanted to be like Roberto Clemente," said Beltran.
Clemente, as noted, was 38 when he passed. He was on the back-end of his 18-year career. While baseball had lost one of its best, the show went on, and in 1973 the Pirates showed up to spring training with only memories of number 21.
"Baseball ain't gonna stop for anybody," said Willie Stargell. "It's just a big business and it's gotta keep goin'."
Manny Sanguillen was given the task that spring to take over for Clemente in right field. He was even given Clemente's old locker. Imagine what was going through his mind. Sanguillen said:
"I really feel bad, because we miss him so bad. The last few years, to me he feel like my family. We used to have fun together, you know. Like when he try to make a home run inside the park, and Willie Mays throw him out. I put a towel down in the dressing room and slide into it and say, 'Oh, oh, I an old man now.'
"I don't like to talk too much about him. Everything come to my mind about him."
Pitcher Steve Blass, so used to seeing Clemente in right field, said:
"Sometime this year, somebody is going to go from first to third against us on a single to right. And I'm going to be shocked. It's never happened before, in all the time I've been in the big leagues, because Clemente has always been there. I'll find myself backing up first base on the play, because Clemente knew the lead runner wasn't going to try anything against him, so he'd try to pick off the hitter taking too big a turn."
Be sure to read the full Sports Illustrated piece where the quotes above have been excerpted from: "Now Playing Right: Manny Sanguillen."
The Pirates weren't the only ones affected. Pirates fans would never be the same. For many, baseball wouldn't, either:
"Now, here I was, struggling to process the idea that I would never see him play again. I spent the rest of that day stumbling around in a fog of depression. I wandered up to the field in Highland Park that had been the scene of many muddy neighborhood New Year's Day football games. But none of the usual gang of kids had shown up. The place was eerily deserted.
"That night there was a somber family discussion at the dinner table. I had a sick feeling in my stomach and couldn't eat. I remember asking my parents how God could allow someone like Roberto Clemente to die this way. My mother didn't have an answer but suggested that I say a prayer for his family. ...
"... baseball has never held the same meaning, the same pure joy as it did in the late '60s and early '70s when Roberto Clemente made me and a lot of other Pittsburgh kids fall in love with the national pastime.
"Every New Year's Eve, the memories of the day Roberto died come flooding back. The only thing that is different is that I've stopped asking why he had to be taken from us so soon. Roberto Clemente died the way all great men die, as a hero whose talent was surpassed only by his spirit and determination to help others."
They didn't celebrate the new year in Puerto Rico 41 years ago. They were mourning Roberto Clemente, a great man first, and a brilliant baseball player, one of the best to play the game, second.